game theory

Ever played a game of Rochambeau (rock-paper-scissors)?

If the answer is yes, then you’ve dipped your toes into the pool of game theory. You’ve made strategic decisions on whether you’ll be a rock, paper, or scissors based on what you think your competitor will do.

Even just a bare grasp of game theory could help you in making decisions with your content marketing, from planning to how you view your audience. Time to admit a dirty secret: my introduction to Game Theory came from the TV show “Numb3rs.” (I will wait for you to stop laughing.)

I loved that show, as ridiculous as it could be. 

I watched as they worked through precarious scenarios based on the motivations that drive us when we make decisions strategically. It made me rethink how often I left things to “default” decisions, and how strategy is a driving factor for nearly all of our decisions (we nearly always have an end goal).

As a content marketer, you are always thinking strategically, whether it’s you vs. the search engines, you vs. time, or you vs. competitors.

Game Theory Is Not Gamification

While researching this blog post, I came across several articles that purported to tell me how to use game theory in content marketing. What they were really describing, as they talked about reward systems for readers, was gamification. Game theory is not gamification.

Gamification is making non-game activities into a game.

Gamification uses our competitive game-playing instincts to influence and change behavior through game systems. It adds things like like scoring or achievement levels to things where such game elements are not normally found. Numbers become our motivators.

It isn’t quite the same as game theory, which probes motivations and strategy. Gamification works on an individual level (self-motivation) as well as in a group (competition). It works with one person or more than one person, depending on the kind of game that is created and the rewards that are doled out.

Game theory is the study of conflict and cooperation between two or more participants.

Game theory is the study of interdependent rational choice, not independent. More simply put, it is people making strategic decisions based on how they think someone in the group will respond to their decision. Game theory is about choices and outcomes, and can be illustrated in two ways.

If there are two or more people working towards a limited goal, game theory is possible. They use rationalization to make decisions based on possible outcomes all while understanding that others are involved and doing the same. There is competition whether it is just to have the highest accumulated score or, even better, a zero-sum game where there is only a finite amount available to win. In that case, you win the same amount the others lost and the sum of the game equals zero (10, -10). It’s a simple shift of the total available from one player to another.

1. Game theory as a tree.

Game theory can be illustrated to look like a tree, where each decision is a branch and you weigh the options. One decision leads to a new set of decisions. This is for sequential “games”, where there are more than one choice to be made be for the final outcome.

Let’s use Robert Frost’s famous poem “The Road Not Taken” to illustrate game theory as a tree.

In this example, the competitors are One Traveler and Time. The traveler has to make choices about which paths to take, with each choice leading onto a different set of options. He can’t go back and change his choices, so he needs to think strategically so he has the best possible outcome at the end.

robert frost and game theory

A tree structure like this is handy when the “game” is ongoing and you are making decisions early on that are going to affect the decisions you’ll be able to make later. You are trying to think strategically, mapping out the best route.

2. Game theory as a matrix.

Game theory can also be illustrated with matrices, which merely show the outcome of different strategies. This is for non-sequential “games” where the competition isn’t so much a series of choices, but a pass-fail scenario where you choose, and there’s an immediate outcome.

Using the 1993 film “The Fugitive” as an example, we can see that the competitors are Deputy U.S. Marshal Sam Gerard and Dr. Richard Kimble (the fugitive). There are three choices these two can make. Depending upon whether they make the same choice or not determines the outcome of the game.

In this matrix, the first number in the set is Dr. Kimble’s score in that scenario. The second number is Gerard’s score. The ultimate win is finding the one-armed man. Kimble also wants to evade capture, whether he finds the one-armed man or not. Gerard, of course, wants to capture Kimble.

the fugitive as game theory

A matrix like this is handy, quite similar to you making a list of pros and cons for a single decision. You’re basically creating a tally to determine which is the highest (best) scoring decision. You list the possible scenarios, score amongst the “competitors” and see which one is optimal.

Game Theory And Content Marketing

Game theory suggests an adversary. How can that possibly be useful in content marketing?

While I sometimes feel adversarial towards commenters on my personal blog and structure blog posts in a way where caveats are used to head off what I suspect will be their “next move” in the comments section, it’s not a great way to incorporate game theory with your content marketing.

Instead, think about approaching your content marketing with a bit of game theory. The questions I’d ask would be this:

  • Is there a competition going on?
  • If so, what is the competition, the game?
  • Who is it between? (you and similar blogs, your audience, inside your team’s strategy planning, you against time, etc.)
  • Do you have rivals?
  • If so, what are you both vying for?

You have to know what the game is before you can think strategically about how you will play it.

Game Theory And Your Competitors

If the game is between you and others creating similar content, you attempt to understand the moves of your competitors and make decisions based on what you think they will do. You want to minimize your own losses. You think several moves ahead.

Let’s say you hear that a rival is going to start a blog full of in-depth articles and heavy-duty research in an attempt to be the go-to source for industry information. You had the same idea in mind, and were going to launch soon. What are your options?

  1. You let him go first, and then launch yours. You wanted to see what his blog was like, and now you’re going to both be in serious competition with each other. (Same quality, last in play.)
  2. You make a change in plans, and decide to start a blog that is more conversational and treats posts not in-depth but more introductory in nature. You’ll be a connector, linking to relevant content and blogs that flesh out what you introduced. (Different quality, no longer in the same game.)
  3. You launch your in-depth blog first and go full blast. You hope to force your competitor’s hand and get him to back off. (Same quality, first in play.)

Which chess move will you make?

You have to know your competitors. You’d need to know if they had the team to keep up with you. You’d need to know if you could keep up with them. You might start to list a few of the game moves that are available to you:

  • Steal. Would you woo away their top writers in your next move?
  • Mimic. Will you go for broke and be unique and original, or will you go the “tit-for-tat” route and mimic the competitor’s every move?
  • Coalition. Will you form a strategic coalition with other content marketers to build a better and more competitive force? Could a group of small blogs take on the Goliath blog?
  • Timing. Will you be hyper-aware of trends and the best time to release content, and outplay your opponent through superior timing and fast game play?

You have to know what the game is, and what moves are available, before you start to play the game.

Game Theory And Your Audience

I’ve been chewing on what I call the “no one reads what they find” quandary. Google seems to value long-form content higher (and readers readily share it), but not as many people actually read those longer blog posts.

I had been reading the Wall Street Journal and came across an excerpt from Think Like A Freak (Levitt and  Dubner) that talked about using game theory to “trick the guilty and gullible” into revealing themselves. The article mentioned David Lee Roth and the infamous Van Halen rider which insisted that there be M&Ms available for the band, but absolutely no brown M&Ms were allowed. Roth explained this seemingly ridiculous demand:

Van Halen’s live show boasted a colossal stage, booming audio and spectacular lighting. All this required a great deal of structural support, electrical power and the like. Thus the 53-page rider, which gave point-by-point instructions to ensure that no one got killed by a collapsing stage or a short-circuiting light tower. But how could Van Halen be sure that the local promoter in each city had read the whole thing and done everything properly?

Cue the brown M&M’s. As Roth tells it, he would immediately go backstage to check out the bowl of M&M’s. If he saw brown ones, he knew the promoter hadn’t read the rider carefully—and that “we had to do a serious line check” to make sure that the more important details hadn’t been botched either.

This got me thinking about this reading dilemma.

Could I use game theory to reward those who actually read what I wrote? Could I link to exclusive content or some kind of trackable reward in the content without advertising that it was in there? Would I want to do this? At the very least, it might be an interesting way to test how much of your content is actually being read, and by whom.

Warning: One-Shot Games, Repeated Games, And Crying Wolf

Game theory includes one-shot games and repeated games, as illustrated by the matrix and tree diagrams. One-shot games have a singular focus: win at a finite game. It’s pass-fail and the strategy doesn’t go any further than completing the current game. But some games go further.

In a sense, because your readers come back to your content more than once, your content isn’t a one-shot game. It is repeated. The same strategy that won your first round might not the second, third or fourth.

Here’s one practical application: Sexy trick headlines don’t work too long (if you don’t deliver the content every time). It’s like crying wolf. Too many flashy headlines that don’t deliver harden your audience to noticing your future efforts. You won the first round, but didn’t realize there was more than one round.

Game Theory And Content Planning

Think game theory has nothing to do with the content you create?

Heck, even Jane Austen used game theory in her writing.

You could apply game theory to your next content planning meeting. Remember that game theory can be thought of as a decision tree. In some ways, it is similar to how we prioritize our content here at CoSchedule, placing action items according to assigned priority that aligns with our end goal. We chart them according to P1, P2, or P3. P1’s get the most attention. Because we’re looking for maximum return as quickly as possible, we are competing against time.

When planning content with your team, there may be disagreement on which content strategy to pursue.

You could debate a long time on whether idea A is better than idea B, which is usually futile; both likely have merit, they are merely different decisions that will lead down a different path. The question isn’t which idea is best, but rather which path is the best. Turning the debate into whether idea A or idea B is the better path in the game can be more effective and lest caustic to those whose ideas are rejected.

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Using Gamification In Your Content Marketing

Let’s revisit gamification. Gamification is you creating the game. Any game theory wizardry is up to the competitors playing your game, not you.

Creating incentives and game-play in apps and services has become so popular people almost don’t notice it anymore. We’re used to seeing it. FourSquare was developed purely on turning the unexciting idea of “here I am” into a game where you can be the mayor of some location.

Any location.

foursquare mayor

Online forums use gamification by showing you which users have participated the most through badges, stars, and titles next to your name. The more helpful you are, the more gamified respect you’ll get.

Waze, a map and traffic mobile app, gives you access to better avatars the more you use the app. FitBit, makers of wrist bands that measure activity, use badges and encouragement when users hit fitness goals. The wrist bands blink and vibrate as well, a “party on the wrist”, to let you know you’ve achieved goals. LinkedIn uses gamification to get users to complete their profiles.

linkedin gamification

LinkedIn encourages people to finish profiles through gamification.

Gamification has been used to do good; medical breakthroughs, education, personal improvement. Employers have even begun to use gamification to improve employee performance by offering points and incentives when certain things are achieved. When you create levels, achievements, percentages, numbers–anything that suggests a progression towards a goal or a win–you are creating gamification.

How can you use gamification with your content marketing? The possibilities are wide open, but here are a few ideas to get the wheels turning:

  • Create achievement levels. Create an online course, and track their progress through levels all the way up to “graduation.”
  • Introduce scoring. Reward those who comment the most on your blog (or share your content the most on social media). Feature them in a blog post with links to their site, maybe, or list them in the sidebar as a top commenter and how many comments have been published on your blog.
  • Suggest skill level. For membership sites, allow them to unlock new content and features as they consume your content. The more they read and share, the more is made available to them.
  • Create a game in your content. Whether you write a blog post where you let people choose the ending, or some kind of scavenger hunt on your blog, you can make your content sticky by turning it into a game itself.

While gamification is good at motivating, there might be a possible psychological cost to the increasing competitiveness injected into realms where it previously did not exist. It’s something to keep in mind when you decide whether or not you want to gamify your content. How will this affect your audience? Will they even respond to your incentives? Will they resent it? Is the prize or reward you are offering something anyone will want?

Regardless, many of us are motivated by results, and gamification creates measurable results where there had been none.

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If you have gamification in place, game theory may more easily come into play for your audience. There is clear competition. They are competing against the others, and are making decisions to come out ahead.

Game theory is complicated and we’ve only scratched the surface in this post, but it holds the potential for fantastic understanding of why people do what they do. Used with content marketing, you could become more strategic in what you write, how you write, and when you write.

How have you used or seen game theory (or gamification) used in content marketing?